Two Excellent Historical Novels by V. M. Whitworth

Æthelflæd as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey

Æthelflæd as depicted in the car­tu­lary of Abing­don Abbey

V. M. Whitworth’s The Bone Thief (Ebury, 2012), and it’s sequel The Traitor’s Pit (Ebury, 2013) are exem­plary his­tor­i­cal nov­els. The author is known, by another name, as a medieval his­to­rian. I read the first book merely out of curios­ity, because I knew her schol­arly work. But, after a few pages, I was hooked. The set­ting is Eng­land Before Eng­land Was, the reigns of Æthelred, King of Mer­cia and Edward of Wes­sex, who was soon to unify the two king­doms and make con­sid­er­able inroads on the Danelaw. The future Eng­land has long been split between Pagan and Chris­t­ian kings, but the Norse Gods are fad­ing as the Scan­di­na­vian con­querors are adopt­ing Chris­tian­ity (with vary­ing degrees of sin­cer­ity), and the two cul­tures are merg­ing. The action of the first book is inspired by an inci­dent recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chron­i­cle as occur­ring in the year 909. The fic­tional hero is Wulf­gar, a young cleric in the ser­vice of his­tor­i­cal Æthelflæd, who is one of the more inter­est­ing women known from the period. For years, Æthelred has been too ill to rule, and The Lady of the Mer­cians rules in his stead. In The Bone Thief, she sends Wulf­gar on a secret mis­sion into the Viking-controlled Five Bur­roughs, to obtain the bones of St. Oswald, which she hopes will rally peo­ple to the Mer­cian cause. The bones have been lost, but are buried anony­mously behind Bard­ney Abbey (which in 2014 is noth­ing more than a few stony lumps in a field north­west of the vil­lage of Bard­ney — see image below). Wulf­gar is a timid soul, and is soon over­whelmed by the con­spir­a­cies, treach­eries, and bru­tal­ity of royal power pol­i­tics. He has been cho­sen for the task pri­mar­ily because he speaks some Dan­ish. No adventure-seeker, he has a naïve belief in most of the things he was taught, which oth­ers around him regard as use­ful fic­tions or dis­pos­able for­mal­i­ties. In the sequel, he is assigned yet another mis­sion, while at the same time try­ing to prove the inno­cence of his elder brother, who has been charged with par­tic­i­pat­ing in an attempt on the life of Edward. This leads into even more con­vo­luted pol­i­tics, vio­lence, and tragedy. In both books, Wulf­gar is con­stantly men­aced by his neme­sis, a bul­ly­ing and bru­tal half-brother, and con­stantly aided by a fierce and rogu­ish Dano-English female adventurer.

Now, those are the bare bones of the books, but it’s the exe­cu­tion that mat­ters. The his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist is con­fronted with a num­ber of very dif­fi­cult choices, even before start­ing a novel. The first is: how much his­tory and how much fic­tion? It is tempt­ing to sim­ply stuff the book with every his­tor­i­cal detail one can find, which makes for a fat book, demand­ing a patient reader. You might call this the McCul­lough Effect. Or you can sim­ply take a quick glance at the ency­clo­pe­dia, then assem­ble a plot that could fit into any era, rely­ing on the clichés and the sword­play to keep the reader from notic­ing that you actu­ally know noth­ing about the period. Strik­ing a sat­is­fac­tory bal­ance between the two is hard­est of all. A lit­tle while ago, I read a lit­tle vol­ume of his­tor­i­cal short sto­ries by the now for­got­ten Cana­dian writer Thomas H. Raddall.[1] Each story is a lit­tle gem, which brings 18th and 19th cen­tury Nova Sco­tia to life with a few, care­fully cho­sen his­tor­i­cal details, slipped in so deftly that you scarcely notice them as you are caught up in the char­ac­ters and their actions. The well-timed appear­ance of a phrase, an object, a cus­tom, or an atti­tude, inte­gral to drama, reveals a sophis­ti­cated analy­sis of the his­tory. Robert Graves also had this knack, and while his inter­pre­ta­tions of his­tory were some­times eccen­tric and out of the main­stream, nobody can fault him for mas­tery of his sources. I rec­om­mend his Count Belis­ar­ius, for any­one who wants to lose them­selves in a his­tor­i­cal novel that is true art. Whitworth’s books dis­play this same skill. Her early Tenth Cen­tury is entirely believ­able, and vividly drawn, but there are no lec­tures or stag­nant pas­sages inter­rupt­ing the rapid move­ment of the story and her remark­ably pre­cise, com­pact prose.

Another ques­tion fac­ing the his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist is how to rep­re­sent past lan­guages. We are all famil­iar with the silly 1950’s Roman Empire movies where the Roman Sen­a­tors speak in Pub­lic School British Eng­lish, the cen­tu­ri­ons speak Mid­west­ern Amer­i­can, and the slaves speak Cock­ney. In these two nov­els, there are a mul­ti­tude of lan­guages and dialects rep­re­sented. Anglo-Saxon is rep­re­sented by mod­ern Eng­lish, with­out stilted, pseudo-medieval archaisms, but flavoured with a few well-chosen words drawn from mod­ern Eng­lish dialects to con­vey the impres­sion of dialects in Anglo-Saxon, as, for exam­ple, the Anglo-Saxon of Mer­cia, Wes­sex, the Five Bur­roughs and Northum­bria, and the pecu­liar Anglo-Saxon which would have been spo­ken as a sec­ond lan­guage by the Norse set­tlers. Whit­worth employs very fine judge­ment in this process. The results never jar the reader, never break the spell of look­ing through a magic mir­ror into the past.

Finally, there is the ques­tion of psy­cho­log­i­cal and moral anachro­nism. I quickly grow impa­tient of his­tor­i­cal nov­els with an ide­o­log­i­cal agenda, or those which wor­ship power and mil­i­tary might. The cult of the king-fuhrer-superman is strong among his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ists. Bru­tal, mur­der­ous gang­sters like Julius Cae­sar and Alexan­der of Mace­don have been turned into beat­i­fied fan­tasy heros by many a writer who would not be able to get away with it if it was Kim Il-Sung or Rein­hard Hey­drich they were writ­ing about. In some nov­els, the hero, in order to be accept­able to a mod­ern audi­ence, is rep­re­sented as hav­ing val­ues that they sim­ply could not have had in the period. Sen­a­tors in ancient Rome spout the United Nations Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights. The mod­ern desire to have strong female char­ac­ters fills nov­els with an improb­a­ble num­ber of woman war­riors and pow­er­ful queens, and a pop­u­la­tion that seems to react to them as if they were the norm. It hap­pens that Æthelflæd was an able politi­cian and led armies into bat­tle, but Whitworth’s nov­els put this in a believ­able, his­tor­i­cally plau­si­ble con­text. Nor does she soft-peddle or ignore the casual bru­tal­ity, vio­lence, and class-ranking of the day. She is very good at pic­tur­ing a soci­ety where loy­al­ties are largely per­sonal, but can mutate into col­lec­tive loy­al­ties. Her hero, Wulf­gar, is drawn sym­pa­thet­i­cally, but dis­plays many atti­tudes that we would frown on today, such as an abject devo­tion to an unat­tain­able woman. His chronic puppy love for every beau­ti­ful woman he meets, sim­mer­ing within the stew-pot of his reli­gious duties, is hard for a mod­ern reader to empathize with, and it’s a spe­cial merit of the books that they con­vey it effec­tively. Again, believ­abil­ity is the author’s strong suit. Her tech­nique is to embroil her char­ac­ter in so much dan­ger and con­fu­sion that we can­not help but root for him, even if he is a bit of a thicky, sometimes.

The site of Bardney Abbey today

The site of Bard­ney Abbey today

[1] At the Tide’s Turn and Other Sto­ries, by Thomas H. Rad­dall.
24562. (V. M. Whit­worth) The Bone Thief
24575. (V. M. Whit­worth) The Traitor’s Pit
[Both were pub­lished by Ebury, an imprint of Penguin/Random House, and are eas­ily avail­able through Amazon.]

Friday, September 12, 2014 — Bárðarbunga Walk

Yes, some peo­ple actu­ally do walk away from an explo­sion with­out look­ing back.…

14-09-12 BLOG Bárðarbunga walkAn Ice­landic vul­ca­nol­o­gist is obvi­ously fed up with Bárðarbunga’s tem­per tantrums. Those lava plumes are higher than most city skyscrapers.

A land­scape I walked on a few years ago no longer exists. Yes­ter­day, sul­phur diox­ide lev­els peaked at 2600μg/m3 (sig­nif­i­cantly dan­ger­ous) at Reyðar­fjörður, a fish­ing town on the east coast. When the lava flow reaches a small moun­tain called Vaðalda, its path will nar­row, with unpre­dictable results. The Skí­nandi water­fall, a land­mark, appears to be doomed. The worst dan­ger remains pos­si­ble: a jökulh­laup, or mas­sive out­burst of glacial melt, accom­pa­nied by toxic ash clouds

Pho­tos by Axel Sig­urðs­son / Morgunblaðið.

14-09-12 BLOG Bárðarbunga fly14-09-12 BLOG Bárðarbunga sattelite

Wednesday, September 10, 2014 — Ideologies

Ideology at work.

Ide­ol­ogy at work.

This is a teenager who was walk­ing to school when he was nearly incin­er­ated by a car-bomb planted by some ideologically-driven zom­bie. I know what the par­tic­u­lar “cause” was, the par­tic­u­lar fac­tion, but I won’t bother to tell you because it doesn’t mat­ter. This is what ide­ol­ogy is all about. Any ideology.

I have spent my life­time study­ing ide­olo­gies and the peo­ple who man­u­fac­ture and deploy them. I have never encoun­tered an ide­ol­ogy that was not in its essence morally cor­rupt and evil. I have never known an ide­o­log­i­cal intel­lec­tual who was not a liar and a fraud. I have never met a mil­i­tarist or “super-patriot” who was not a snivel­ing coward.

Whether it’s the Koch Broth­ers, smarmy aca­d­e­mic Marx­ists, Dick Cheney, creeps in the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, Maoists, Euro­pean Neo-Nazis, Vladimir Putin, fun­da­men­tal­ist “Chris­tians”, Tea Party nitwits, Amer­i­can Mili­tia nut­bars, reli­gious fanat­ics of every breed, goofs run­ning around with Che Gue­vara t-shirts, the war­lord armies of Gédéon Kyungu Mutanga and Joseph Kony, the phony-baloney “Lib­er­tar­ian” move­ment, drug car­tels mas­querad­ing as “lib­er­a­tion” move­ments, lunatics like ISIS or Boko Haram…. or just the local cops in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri…. they are all the same, all inter­change­able. In study­ing the myr­iad tribal rival­ries of these jack­asses, it is easy to lose track of this fact. Ide­olo­gies are not “ideas” or “philoso­phies” — they are just pack­ages of strate­gic lies and swin­dling tech­niques. The motives are always the same.

I advise any­one who is toy­ing with one of these ide­olo­gies to look at this pic­ture closely. Most of all, pic­ture your­self in that boy’s place.

Sunday, August 31, 2014 — Will Tiny Chattanooga Lead America Out of Conservative Darkness?

It’s appar­ent that not all of rural Amer­ica is pre­pared to let the forces of Con­ser­vatism drive them into poverty and feu­dal serfdom. 

The City of Chattanooga’s local pub­lic power author­ity had a prob­lem a few years ago. They were plagued with power out­ages. The city esti­mated losses of about $100m annu­ally to local busi­ness from these out­ages. Like most small cities in the U.S., Chattanooga’s econ­omy was dead in the water. The solu­tion, for the power author­ity, was to install a fiber-optic sys­tem to com­mu­ni­cate with the dig­i­tal equip­ment on the grid. This new tech­nol­ogy would elim­i­nate most out­ages and quicken restora­tion times when they occurred, plus ren­der main­te­nance more effi­cient and sig­nif­i­cantly lower oper­at­ing costs. The plan was to build the sys­tem for $220m (the cost of an indoor shop­ping mall) financed by a local bond issue, and to fin­ish the work in ten years. Dur­ing con­struc­tion, Obama’s Recov­ery Act took effect, and it turned out that they qual­i­fied for $110m of Fed­eral money, which meant that the project could be fin­ished in three years. Now here’s the inter­est­ing part. At some point in the process (I’m not sure when), they real­ized that they were actu­ally build­ing a super-fast inter­net cable sys­tem, and that they could pro­vide every­one in Chat­tanooga with inter­net ser­vice run­ning at 1 gig per sec­ond —- about fifty times faster than the U.S. aver­age.  Read more »


(Lemont 1961) Konga
(Neu­mann 1950) Rock­et­ship X-M [Mys­tery Sci­ence The­atre ver­sion]
(Tarkovsky 1960) The Steam­roller and the Vio­lin [Каток и скрипка]
(Traucki 2013) The Jun­gle
(Davies 1980) Madonna and Child
(Cox 2006) Mam­moth
(Carstairs 1954) One Good Turn Read more »

First-time listening for August 2014

24602. (Cocteau Twins) BBC Ses­sions
24603. (Armens) Six dif­férents
24604. (Lon­don Gram­mar) If You Wait
24605. (Johannes Ock­egham) Vire­lai: “Ma bouche rit
24606. (Johannes Ock­egham) Ron­deau: “Presque transi
24607. (Johannes Ock­egham) Rondeau-Canon: “Prenez sur moi Read more »


24633. (Mau­rice LeBlanc) [Arsène Lupin] L’Aiguille creuse
24634. (Oliver Gold­smith) An Essay on the The­atre [arti­cle]
24635. (Oliver Gold­smith) Reg­is­ter of Scotch Mar­riages [arti­cle]
24536. (Lester B. Pear­son) The Cri­sis of Devel­op­ment
24537. (Jane J. Lee) First Nation Tribe Dis­cov­ers Griz­zly Bear “High­way” in Its Back­yard
. . . . . [arti­cle]
24538. (Amy Ger­man) Oujé-Bougoumou Finally Attains For­mal Recog­ni­tion [arti­cle]
24539. (Keith Knapp) Review of Death in Ancient China by Con­stance A. Cook [review] Read more »

Thursday, August 7, 2014 — The Mammoth Cheese

14-08-07 BLOG The Original Mammoth Cheese

The orig­i­nal Mam­moth Cheese of Inger­soll, Ontario, in 1866.

Read more »


(Flo­rey 1932) Mur­ders in the Rue Morgue
(Yarbrough 1946) The She-Wolf of Lon­don
(Donen 1967) Bedaz­zled
(Davies 1976) Chil­dren
(Lot­terby 1986) Yes, Prime Min­is­ter: Ep.3 ― The Smoke Screen
(Lot­terby 1986) Yes, Prime Min­is­ter: Ep.4 ― The Key
(Mar­tino 1978) Moun­tain of the Can­ni­bal God Read more »

First-time listening for July 2014

24560. (Josquin des Prez) Missa Mal­heur me bat
24561. (Josquin des Prez) Missa For­tuna des­per­ata
24562. (Nol­wenn Leroy) Bre­tonne
24563. (Wil­son Pick­ett) The Very Best of Wil­son Pick­ett
24564. (Trey Anas­ta­sio) Sur­ren­der to the Air
24565. (Soeurs Goadec) Pub­lic à Bobino Read more »